The Way of the Word

19. February 2010

Stepfather of the Animation Age

Filed under: Animation,Commentary,general,movies,TV — jensaltmann @ 10:20
Tags: , , , ,

My wife and I translate Japanese anime for a living. This month, we had worked on two very different anime series. One was from the early 1980s, the other was from 2009. My wife asked me about the target groups for those two shows. Specifically, the ages. Because the anime from the 1980s was much, much simpler. Not just the design or the technical aspects. The voice actors made far less effort towards realism, there were hardly any sounds like sighs or grunts or groans. The stories were simple and straightforward. The new show was essentially a regular action-adventure show, only animated instead of live-action. The characters and themes, the entire storyline, were complex and thought through. I guessed that the old show would be tagged for ages 12 and up, while the minimum age for the new show would be set as 16.

Animation really isn’t for kids anymore. It used to be, though, when I was young. Back then, animation was for children. And rightly so. There were programs like Sealab 2020 and Star Trek the Animated Series and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Or, if you prefer, Scooby Doo and Casper. Or even Captain Future. The following decade saw shows like Thundercats or Transformers. But even in the 1980s, these shows were fairly simple matters. By todays standards, they were childish.

Disney had absolute dominion of the feature animation market, and made sure that their animated movies were suitable for even the youngest children.

When you grew into your teens, you had become too old for animation. At least you wouldn’t admit to liking it. But that was okay, animation didn’t seem to age with you, so you left it behind for the younger generation.

These days, however, most animation is on a level where adults can enjoy it as much as children. I am not only talking about anime, which has grown up considerably. Or would you let a child watch something as scary, complex and bizarre as Paranoia Agent?

Instead, modern animation is written on different levels. The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E have layers that a child can enjoy, while adults can enjoy these movies as well, if for different reasons. Even the standard Disney animated movie is far more complex and even violent than its predecessors.

What happened?

Now, bear in mind that I don’t have insider knowledge, so I can’t know for certain. I’m operating from my own memory here, and I can only speak for the western world. I’m sure that in Japan, anime simply became increasingly adult and complex to meet the demands of their evolving marketplace. I imagine it was a process similar to the increasing complexity of US comic books.

I believe that what happened here in the west was Ralph Bakshi. Fritz the Cat

Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, to name just three of his earlier works, were quite anarchistic and subversive films that used animation as a form of expression. The films taught their audience that just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it has to be for children.

When Bakshi served the audiences with The Lord of the Rings (1978)

and Fire and Ice (1983),

he went beyond the fringe movements and entered the mainstream. Suddenly, everyone got to see that animation was capable of a lot of the same things as live-action movies. Teenagers, who used to think that animation was beneath them, rediscovered a whole new world.

If you look at the release dates of these movies, one thing becomes obvious: the people who were young when Bakshi’s movies came out are now themselves working in animation. (Even if, like me, they only translate anime.) Modern animation doesn’t just reflect the different technological possibilities, it also reflects the altered perspective of a generation.



  1. I think you’ve hit on something here — though I wouldn’t go so far as to call Bakshi’s work “adult” in the sense of it being a mature and thoughtful exploration of dramatic themes. If anything, I think his films were adolescent (even the one I worked on, “Fire and Ice”) rather than adult. Still, that’s an advance over the more childish material being created at the time, and was definitely a step toward the more mature material available today. I think the real influence Bakshi had is more due to the work he did with John Kricfalusi on “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse.” Kricfalusi went on to create Ren and Stimpy, which really revolutionized children’s animation, and inspired a wholesale reappraisal of multi-level storytelling in cartoons. To the extent that Bakshi helped set Kricfalusi on that path, he’s a godfather of the kind of animation we have today.

    Comment by Gerry Conway — 20. February 2010 @ 20:02

  2. I would say that Bakshi is animation’s Stan Lee: he didn’t invent the genre/medium, but when it stagnated he raised it to the next level and thereby opened the door for growth.

    As I think more on this, I think I haven’t given Disney their proper credit. When I wrote the post, I was thinking of features like The Rescuers. But Disney, in their time, created animated features like Fantasia. Which I wouldn’t call a children’s movie, it’s far too complex and bizarre for that. Over on LJ, Todd Alcott is writing about the surrealism of the plotless movie Bambi. In the beginning, Disney took a lot of creative chances, which is mostly being overlooked these days.

    I’m increasingly inclined to think that Disney got a raw deal. They had the highest profile in western animation at the time, so they got a lot of blame for things that Hanna-Barbera actually did. Shows like Flintstones, Jetsons and Scooby-Doo were aimed at a much younger audience than a lot of the Disney features. But because the H-B shows were on television, they penetrated the audience consciousness as the benchmark, and Disney got tarred with the same brush.

    Until, and I stand by that, Bakshi broke out of that rut and helped animation grow up.

    I’d be surprised if this ground hasn’t been covered by film students for decades. 🙂

    Comment by jensaltmann — 21. February 2010 @ 15:05

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